Nigeria’s Religious and Cultural Conflict

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Nigeria’s Religious and Cultural Conflict

By Ike Chidi

Ethnic conflict has scared Nigeria dating back to the slave trade and is still apparent today. The clash between Muslims and Christians throughout the Nigerian state has brought about concern on how stable a nation Nigeria is. Recently, the country of 126 million has seen a dramatic increase in violence. Since the election of Olusegun Obasanjo in 1999, there has been over 10,000 Nigerians killed due to ethnic, religious, or political violence. This constant conflict is slowly deteriorating the Nigerian state. Its impact is seen not only through the eyes of innocent youths and defenseless women, but also in the political and economic structure of the nation. This paper looks at the conflict in Nigeria between the Muslims and Christians and its impact on Nigerian culture.

Nigeria is one of the largest nations on the African continent. It is comprised of 400 different ethnic groups each having its own specific language, social customs, and beliefs. To understand the conflicts Nigeria faces on must first look at its demographic make up. The state can be divided into two zones the northern savannah zone and the southern forest zone. Separating the northern state from the southern state is both the Niger and Benue rivers. This area is often referred to as the Middle Belt and is where many Muslims and Christian conflicts take place.

The northern state of Nigeria is dominated by three ethnic groups. The first, the Kanuri, are found in the northeastern corner around Lake Chad. The second group, the Hausa, the dominant group north of the Niger is found west of the Kanuri. The third ethnic group the Fulani are scattered throughout all of northern Nigeria (Adediran 10)1. All three tribes share the same religious faith, that of Islam. In a book titled Nigerian History and Culture edited by Richard Olaniyan, author Biodun Adediran describes the beginnings of these ethnic groups through legends passed orally from generation to generation.

“These legends can be classified into two. In the first category are traditions woven around culture heroes who migrated at the head of groups of people from somewhere outside the area covered by present-day Nigeria; Arabia and the north-eastern part of Africa have always been pointed out as likely sources of these migrations…the second category of traditions of origins of Nigerian peoples are those which do not remember a time when the area now occupied by any of the ethnic groups was entirely [unpopulated]. These latter traditions refer to autochthonous inhabitants whose traditions and cultures are continuous with those of the various peoples who now inhabit Nigeria.” (10)

Both classifications provide starting evidence to the spread of the Islamic faith through northern Nigeria. The first classification describes war heroes traveling the Sahara to Nigeria and with them bringing there Islamic faith, whereas the latter classification assumes a similarity between the Islamic faith and the already present Nigerian culture in the northern area. Further evidence has concluded that Merchants traveling along caravan trade routes openly preached their religion, and “as the merchants passed along the trade routes, settlements were formed in which some of the foreign traders and craftsmen remained with their indigenous customers, inter-married with them and formed separate communities” (241). The natives were attracted to Islam due to the religious devotion displayed by the merchants, and its supernatural healing power.

Unlike Islam, the spread of Christianity took many more years. Christianity is most apparent in southern Nigeria, an area dominated by many different ethnic groups, for example, the Ibibio Efik, Igbo, and Yoruba. In the 1400’s when the slave trade was starting to expand, Portuguese merchants arrived in Nigeria and traded brass and copper for Nigerian prisoners who were taken captive when neighboring tribes warred one another. The Portuguese tried hard to bring Christianity to the people of southern Nigeria, but their efforts were futile and did not have any lasting effects (247). The real impact of Christianity on Nigeria came after the end of slavery and slave trading.

The 1800’s in Europe has been described as “the age of enlightenment.” It was an era of individualism and human freedom. More importantly, it viewed slavery as going against the principals of human freedom because all men in the eyes of God are created equally. In 1833 Parliament abolished slavery throughout the British Empire. Because slavery was seen as an asset not only to British merchants but also Nigerian chiefs, the British government realized they needed to accomplish two things. First, Britain needed to take control over certain parts of Africa, and second help Africans learn to produce items that they could benefit from besides slave trading. For example, the British government began making treaties with Nigerian chiefs urging them to stop slavery and instead trade palm oil.

British Imperialism in Africa provided missionaries the opportunity to spread Christianity and the word of the Lord in aims that the people would see the evils in slave trading. As a result, Nigeria became an attractive spot for Christian missionaries. In 1842 Thomas Freeman founded the first Methodist Church in Abeokuta a village in southern Nigeria, and in 1844 the CMS (Church Missionary Society) arrived in the same village (143). Yet, Christianity was not as attractive as Islam was in the North. It was hard to convince many Nigerians to follow “the white man’s Lord.” The Islamic faith had such a strong impact on many northern cities, and missionaries found it impossible to convince people outside of southern Nigeria the benefits of Christianity. Even more, the terrain was not suitable for British priests. “The tropical forest with its epidemic of insects or fungal pests like the anopheles mosquito which causes malaria, and the tsetse-fly which causes sleeping sickness,” were deterrents of travel. Because of the poor roads, missionaries were afraid to travel through the Nigerian forest in fear of disease. Furthermore, “most of the rivers in Nigeria were not navigable; inter-communal conflicts and the wars made traveling perilous; and the language barrier impeded communication” (246). As a result, Christian influence was mainly in southern Nigeria around Lagos and other large port cities were travel was easy and the influence of Islam was weak.

Not only did British missionaries help foster the spread of Christianity in Nigeria, but also recently freed slaves from British Colonies. When slavery was abolished in the British Empire many freed slaves returned to Africa. One of the cities they returned to was Freetown the capital of Sierra Leone. Sierra Leone became the home of many “black missionaries who fostered the growth of the faith” (248). Christianity hit Sierra Leone earlier then any other African nation. In 1799 the CMS was founded by men working for the Sierra Leone Company. Many ex-slaves of Freetown began to migrate throughout West Africa and the largest migration to Lagos, Nigeria. Because of the location of Lagos it was an attractive spot for many missionaries. “The history of Sierra Leone was repeated. The city [Lagos] was divided into parishes, each with its own church…educational institutions similar to those of Freetown were developed early in Lagos, and by 1887 the city was organized into native pastorate” (248). The introduction of Christianity to southern Nigeria marked an important turning point in the political and social structure of Nigeria.

As the number of Christian churches increased and churches influence on society increased, they began implementing many ideals of Christianity into African culture that fueled the opposition. For example, in 1889 the Lambeth ruled against polygyny “a pronouncement against the entire social set-up of Africa” (249). The Churches zero tolerance rule forced people to submit or revolt. Many decided to revolt, others went to Islam and conflict arose. Many began creating their own churches which combined Christian values with African beliefs. Furthermore, southern pagan cities were slowly turning to Islam, and the popularity of Islam was increasing due to its adaptation of “African milieu.” Many Christian missionaries thus described the religion of Islam as an “African religion” (250). Thus problem arose when Islam and Christianity began to mix.

When generalizing the demographic populations of Nigeria, the north would be considered Islamic and the south Christian. Today, many conflicts around the world pit two nations against each other due to differing religious beliefs. What happens when the opposing religions occupy one nation? There has historically been a religious rivalry in the Kaduna state of Nigeria which is predominately Christian and their Hausa/Fulani Muslim counterparts (Abdu 1302). The rivalry can be dated back to pre-colonial political structures of Hausa land and the politics of colonialism. Many people suggest that the underdevelopment of the communities within the state is a result of deliberate neglect by the emirate officials. The communities are ruled by Hausa/Fulani people but the majority population is Christian. The differences over religion, politics, and resource distribution have fueled many bitter conflicts (130). As a result, there is an overall feeling of Muslim domination in the ruling party and unfair legislation as a result of the differing cultures representing the area.

In the last two decades there has been an increase in Muslim-Christian conflict in Nigeria. In December 1994 a Muslim fundamentalist group the Shiites brutally beheaded Goron Dutse an Igbo man who was accused of using the Koran to clean the toilet. Dutse was arrested, but while in prison a group of Muslim Shiites defied all security arrangements went into Dutse’s prison cell and severed his head. Although there was no reprise from either the Igbo or the Christian communities, people of the area were extremely apprehensive and tension arose. Shops were closed and people fled the area in fear of a riot (Abdu 82)3.

Within the last three years many Northern states in Nigeria have adopted Shariah law, or strict Islamic law. The Shariah law calls for public flogging for drinking alcohol, amputation for stealing, and stoning to death for adultery. “Mutual suspicions between Muslims and Christians in Nigeria have deepened since a dozen northern state governments began applying strict Islamic or Shariah law in the past three years, sparking periodic bouts of sectarian violence” (Siegel 2). The implementation of Shariah Laws has raised many eye brows of Christians in southern Nigeria. This has lead to many violent conflicts between Christians and Muslims throughout the country. The first major conflict between Christians and Muslims following the introduction of Shariah law came in Kaduna in February 2000. Large groups of Christians demonstrated against the expansion of Shariah law near the government house and were met by large numbers of their Muslim counterparts. Muslims believed the Christian demonstrators were not peaceful but instead violent. They argued innocent Muslims were harassed and forced to denounce their religion. On the contrary, Christians accused the Muslims of being intolerant, and that it is the Muslims that provoke all violence. The mêlée lasted for more than 72 hours and President Obasanjo compared this conflict with that of the Civil War which afflicted Nigeria from 1967 to 1970.

Recently, international papers have focused on a Nigerian woman by the name of Amina Lawal. Her case has “sharpened the divide between Muslims and Christians in Africa’s most populous country” (Pitman 1). In March of 2003 Lawal was convicted by an Islamic court to be buried to her neck and stoned to death. Her case gained international support and six months after being sentenced to death Lawal was set free by the same court that charged her. However, others have not been as fortunate as Amina Lawal, in other cases a man stole a goat and was punished by having his hand amputated. Even though Shariah laws do not apply to Christians living in the area it still affects many as was seen in the Amina Lawal case. Many believe religious and civil law must be kept separate, and the Nigerian government is doing there best to separate church from state. In the case of Amina Lawal, President Obasanjo said even if Lawal’s appeal was thrown out by the Islamic court she would not be prosecuted by the Nigerian government because he does not believe in that form of brutality.

At a local all girl’s college in Kauzaure, one person was killed and several churches were torched after a dispute between Muslim and Christian students. The small college holds refuge for students trying to escape the violence throughout Nigeria. A Nigerian priest who witnessed the melee said, “Muslim students were abusing Jesus and Christians also insulted their prophet, the words became threats and then acts” (McKenzie 1). Following the argument a group of young Muslim men pillaged the town, setting fire to every church and even attacking pedestrians of the opposite faith.

If Shariah law is so heavily protested in many states, how was it able to pass? In the Kaduna state a 15 member committee was brought together to sample the views of indigenes living in the area. The conclusions are surprising. The committee received a total of 133 oral presentations and 120 of those presentations were pro Shariah law. Furthermore, 267 memoranda were submitted and 120 supported the introduction of Shariah law (99)4. Of course one can point out the obvious problem with both experiments. Because the committee was drawing from a predominately Muslim area by asking only a few hundred individuals the probability they interview Muslim proponents was very likely. However, because of the strong appeal shown by the Kaduna people the local government decided to implement Shariah laws in the state.

Often times, Nigeria has been described as a geographical expression, and that the amalgamation of many diverse nationalities into one geographic zone was a mistake by the British (Tanko 199)5. This claim was confirmed in a statement by former Parliamentary Private Secretary of State in the British Colonial Office (1952-1959). He said:

During the debate for independence of Nigeria, the view of the Secretary of State at that time, with which I agreed, was that in Nigeria we should attempt to put together a large and powerful state with ample material resources…This was attractive but it involved forcing several different ethnic and cultural groups into a single political structure…In exculpation, it must be said that we did not then have the examples of the collapse of Yugoslavia…It should now be clear for all but the willfully blind to see that it is extremely dangerous to force diverse radical and social entities into a single political structure. (199)6

Nigeria being described as an amalgamation is not only limited to Nigeria. Many nations in Africa struggle with the same demographic make-up. As a result, there is serious conflict that leads to destruction and more importantly loss of innocent lives. Dr. Bauna Tanko makes a very interesting point when saying: looking at a world map creates the false impression that the world is neatly divided into countries with defined boundaries. The truth however is that within these countries are ethnic groups with different cultural and sometimes religious-social and economic interests and worldwide views which may be contradictory and sometimes conflictual (200). Many black nationalists in the United States argue the same point. They believe blacks in the United States must create their own nation because government legislation only benefits the majority. As a result, one cannot look at blacks within the US as being American, instead they are there own landless nation.

The impact of Muslim Christian conflicts has had a heavy impact on the people of Nigeria. These impacts include death, economic impact, educational, displacement, widowhood, and psychological. The first impact is loss of life. Many women and children are dying due to brutal violence between the Muslims and Christians. The table below is a sample research that indicates the number of family members that died during the Kaduna conflict:



















(Hussaini Abdu 135).

The table indicates a large number of family members lost. Because women and children are usually found at home and not able to defend themselves they are the first victims. Houses are usually rampaged and destroyed and families are forced into poverty and this negatively impacts the growth and development of children (Abdu 83)7. Table 2 estimates the number of houses destroyed and families displaced in Kaduna state.







Tudun Wada



Kano/Hayin Barki



Kachia and Everon









(Hussaini Abdu 128)8.

More importantly, when there are large riots schools are usually closed for safety reasons. Sometimes the schools are used and taken over by the fighting groups. As a result, children are not able to receive an education. Table 4 looks at the extent of property destroyed during the Kaduna conflict.







Partly (Residential)



Party (Business)



Not destroyed






(Hussaini Abdu 137)

The graph shows the massive amount of residential and educational buildings destroyed, thus having a monumental affect on many children. Furthermore, if a child loses a parent it is hard for him or her to return to school being forced to take up many household responsibilities let alone the stress of losing a loved one. Table 3 indicates relationship with the deceased.
















Extended Family






(Hussaini Abdu 136)

Due to major loss of life and property many women and children were forced to live somewhere other then their original residence. Out of 53,000 individuals displaced 75% were women and children. Table 5 indicates the change of residence for many women and children.










No response






(Hussaini Abdu 138)
Again, because many of these children were displaced they were not able to attend school. Furthermore, many of the individuals involved in these conflicts acquire severe injuries that ultimately handicap them. Therefore it limits the economic activities the handicapped can engage in thus making them economically dependant, and in most cases leading many to the streets begging (Abdu 84-85)9.

What is even more depressing about the Muslim-Christian conflict in Nigeria is the level of violence that surrounds it. Little children growing up in Nigeria witness violent acts everyday and soon become accustomed to it.

Arguably, the unfortunate resort to a culture of violence by the youth is a direct result of the example of sadism and cynism that have characterized the comportment of state…Young men and women who have grown up under an atmosphere of state sponsored violence necessarily operate under a logic which sees raw power and violence as the answer to all problems” (Ali 103).

When tense situations arise people believe the only option they have to resolve the issue is through the use of force. The idea that one’s surroundings help shape the individual as a person is evident in the case of Nigerian youths. Muslim leaders in Nigeria and other nation’s facing similar problems speak of “radicalization of Muslim youth” (Siegel 1). This is a result of the increasing militant brands of Islam that have been propagated by a proliferation of Islamic schools. Billions of dollars have been spent to help spread the Islamic cause throughout Africa (Siegel 1).Therefore, in the case of Shariah law, more Muslims believe Islamic rule takes precedent to state law.

Yosuf Ali, one of many authors of Ethno-Religious Conflicts and Democracy in Nigeria: Challenges believes high unemployment and inadequacy in handling large crowds to be a reason for the escalating violence due to religious conflicts. “The due are inexcusable and rests squarely on the government” (104)10. Yet, the government has implemented many programs to help prevent any more victims during these religious conflicts. However, the governments “conflict minimization strategy” can be compared to that of a fire-fighter. For example, “appealing to calm and tolerance, announcement of dusk to dawn curfew to restrict movement of people” (Abdu 85). The local state governments lack strong political structure that when a conflict does arise the guilty party is rarely punished. Bad leadership will naturally breed bad followership.

The religious conflicts plaguing Nigeria is also a result of the economy of the nation. In the 1980’s many African nations were affected by their ailing economic condition, and as a result introduced one form or the other of Structural Adjustment Programs (Adejumobi, 1995:164:511). The programs were inspired by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank (Abdu 154). When the price of oil went down dramatically this had a domino affect on the foreign exchange receipt and the level of domestic production in the country. The economic downfall of Nigeria was not just due in part to the decreasing oil prices, however, it helped in exposing “the inherent contradictions that characterized the post colonial Nigerian pattern of accumulation and reinforced the problems they posed for the country’s capitalist’s accumulation (Abdu 155). The industrial sectors were affected heavily. About 50% of the manufacturing companies’ shutdown, thus workers were laid off; this led to food shortage and a collapse of urban life. The national output fell by 8% in 1983 and by 13.5% in 1984. Furthermore, inflation rose from 23% to 40% within the same years. The economy had a negative affect on all aspects of Nigerian life ranging from education to Medicare. The implementation of SAP had an off-putting effect on the people of Nigeria. Inflation increased even more, standard of living dropped drastically, and more workers were laid off. As a result, “there socioeconomic conditions made religious question and conflict inevitable” (157). Welfare programs were lost immediately following the SAP, and various groups found different mechanisms to cope with the deteriorating economic environment. Therefore, many people found refuge within their religion. More importantly:

With the reduction of the resources to be accessed by the ruling class, there was need to mobilize some primordial and popular sentiment like religion and ethnicity to get to the resources and outplay other groups. This rejuvenated religious identities and solidarity and the mobilization of these identities to serve political and economic ends. (158).

Religion becomes a very powerful force during adverse conditions. During the economic crisis in Nigeria, the people segregated themselves by their religions, and the elites took advantage. Political actors have turned religious terrain into battle ground for contesting perceived marginalization and to gain political recognition and support from their communities (172). Siegel author and writer for the International Herald Tribune, believes “governments that have attempted to appease the agitators by blurring the lines between secular and Islamic law have only spurred on young radicals. If a Muslim was elected in a certain area he may pass something that benefits only Muslims and vice versa for Christians.

What recommendations can be given to Nigeria to help stop religious conflict? By creating more jobs the government can raise the standard of living. Providing communities with labor projects will distract idle youths from joining wandering religious mobs (Abdu 86)12. Providing more education for youths could take many off the streets and end street begging. In classrooms children must be taught to respect human rights and respect individual freedoms while staying within the contexts of the law. Individuals should understand what rights they have and do not have without violating another. Not only can education be used to teach youths, but also the media is a wonderful outlet of propaganda. Furthermore, something should be done in respect to women and children’s rights. Women should be employed in high positions or given well paying jobs to decrease their dependency on their husbands. Finally, law enforcement must be trained to handle any situation, and police must be able to detect problems before they hit (86-87).

Consequently the effects of this religious crisis has thwarted the development of the body polity and has given the impression that the problem has nothing useful to offer to the progress of Nigeria as a growing nation (Ali 101). Furthermore, it has affected the “democratic norms and values and has consistently presented Nigeria as one big disunited and largely polarized” (101). Having a nation of many diverse religions and ethnicities has caused many problems, and instead of being a strong point of Nigeria it has become a weakness. Furthermore, rather than being one nation it has become many nations within one. These religious crises have more often then not resulted in loss of lives and violation of human freedoms. In order for Nigeria to move in a productive path in the 21st century, various organizations must get involved to find a lasting solution to a growing problem.


Alemika, Etanibi and Festus Okoye. Ethono-Religious Conflicts and Democracy in

Nigeria: Challenges. Kaduna, Nigeria: Human Rights Moniter, 2002.
Okoye, Festus. Victims: Impact of Religious and Ethnic Conflicts on Women and

Children in Northern Nigeria. Kaduna, Nigeria: Human Rights Monitor, 2000.
Olaniyan, Richard. Nigerian History and Culture. England: Longman House, 1985.
McKenzie, Glenn. “Rioters burn places of worship, killing one in northern Nigeria.”

Associated Press. 19, November 2003. International News
Siegle, Joseph. “Governments must act to soothe religious tension; Africa’s fault line.”

International Herald Tribune. 9, June 2003. Opinion; Pg. 8
Pitman, Todd. “Nigeria appeals court overturns sentence of woman who was to be stoned to death for adultery.” Associated Press. 25, September 2003. International News
“Two killed, mosques burned in Christian-Muslim clashes in Nigeria.” Associated Press

World stream. 9, June 2003. International News

1 Olaniyan, Richard. Nigerian History and Culture. England: Longman House, 1985.

2 Alemika, Etanibi and Festus Okoye. Ethono-Religious Conflicts and Democracy in

Nigeria: Challenges.

3 Okoye, Festus. Victims: Impact of Religious and Ethnic Conflicts on Women and

Children in Northern Nigeria. Kaduna, Nigeria: Human Rights Monitor, 2000.

4 Alemika, Etanibi and Festus Okoye. Ethono-Religious Conflicts and Democracy in

Nigeria: Challenges.

5 Alemika, Etanibi and Festus Okoye. Ethono-Religious Conflicts and Democracy in

Nigeria: Challenges.

6 Quoted by Arthur Nwankwo, THISDAY Newspaper, Vol 5, No. 1681, Monday, November 29, 1999, page 40

7 Okoye, Festus. Victims: Impact of Religious and Ethnic Conflicts on Women and

Children in Northern Nigeria. Kaduna, Nigeria: Human Rights Monitor, 2000.

8 Others have provided contradictory figures --Alemika, Etanibi and Festus Okoye. Ethono-Religious Conflicts and Democracy in

Nigeria: Challenges.

9 Okoye, Festus. Victims: Impact of Religious and Ethnic Conflicts on Women and

Children in Northern Nigeria. Kaduna, Nigeria: Human Rights Monitor, 2000.

10 Alemika, Etanibi and Festus Okoye. Ethono-Religious Conflicts and Democracy in

Nigeria: Challenges.

11 Abdu Page 154

12 Okoye, Festus. Victims: Impact of Religious and Ethnic Conflicts on Women and

Children in Northern Nigeria. Kaduna, Nigeria: Human Rights Monitor, 2000.

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